Long Beach City College and the Long Beach Collective Association, a cannabis trade organization, are charting new territory when it comes to career development in the cannabis industry.

The two agencies have a years-long partnership in place that helps prepare students to navigate the legal framework and understand what it takes to be successful in the budding field. Now, they’re slated to build on that relationship with a first-of-its-kind cannabis symposium on Nov. 4, where officials will share their knowledge and introduce other higher education institutions, students, business owners and employees to the possibilities of developing similar partnerships and programs beyond Long Beach.

And the two organizations have plenty of knowledge to share, as their partnership dates back more than five years.

Voters approved the statewide legalization of recreational cannabis use in 2016, and the industry had been expanding across the state. But there was a void when it came to workforce development and education for people interested in pursuing careers in the industry, said Adam Hijazi, CEO of two licensed dispensaries in Long Beach and president of the Long Beach Collective Association.

“A lot of people don’t fully understand how much the industry has changed from 10 years ago, 15 years ago, five years ago, and the requirements and the regulations of how to run your business really demand skill and an educated workforce,” Hijazi said.

With the idea to build a team of instructors made up of experienced industry professionals and format an eight-week academic curriculum, the partnership between the collective association and LBCC was a first of its kind, Hijazi said.

And the interest in the new program became immediately clear: When the pilot program first launched in 2020, within two hours, over 800 people had applied, Hijazi said.

Between 200 and 300 students have since gone through the program, which has since engaged participants from across the state, country, and even internationally, Hijazi said.

While the program does not currently involve direct job placement, participants complete the course with a certificate from LBCC’s workforce development program and the Long Beach Collective Association, as well as with a well-rounded introductory understanding to the cannabis industry and its regulatory framework, plus access to an employment pipeline through connections to industry professionals, Hijazi said.

At the forefront of the programming is a focus on social equity—a certain number of slots in each workshop is allotted to those who have been impacted by the criminalization of marijuana.

“Our community was severely impacted by criminalization, and it’s incredibly important for them to be able to benefit,”  said Dana Friez, LBCC’s interim director for workforce development. “Now that it’s legal, they should have an entry point into that industry.”

For LBCC, a partnership such as this was “uncharted territory,” but one that was necessary, both to serve the community, and to support local businesses, said Friez.

While leadership initially worried about how offering a cannabis course could potentially impact the school’s ability to garner federal financial aid, LBCC was able to successfully navigate the risks with the help of the collective association, Friez said.

For instance, of the two cannabis workshop series offered, no actual products are brought to campus, and the programs operate out of LBCC’s workforce training arm, rather than its degree program, so as not to complicate federal funding, explained Friez.

But Hijazi hopes that this will change in future iterations of the program—and that eventually, students will be able to complete a full-fledged degree program with other already-existing courses that relate to the cannabis industry, such as chemistry and marketing, he said.

But in the meantime, partnerships with local colleges and developing an educational program such as this are crucial to reducing some of the stigma that still surrounds the cannabis industry today, Hijazi said.

“It’s probably one of the pinnacles of the work that we’ve done over more than the last decade,” Hijazi said. “We’re so proud of that partnership, and we’re so proud of the community college for taking this bold step. They didn’t really have to, but they—early on—adopted this perspective of what the future is going to look like, three, four, five, 10 years ahead.”

Although working in the industry “can be a lot of fun,” there is immense responsibility in every area, from cultivation to retail to manufacturing, Hijazi said.

While many higher education institutions may still be hesitant about forming a similar partnership, cannabis is a rapidly growing industry, Hijazi said.

“In the state of California, we approximate that there’s a $15 billion cannabis industry—maybe $10 billion of that is in the illicit market, and only $5 billion is in legal, but this is a growing market, a growing segment, a growing product of the future, and at the end of the day, you can only not deal with this for so long before it starts to change serious landscapes in the business industry,” Hijazi said.

Business landscapes are already altering. Cannabis tourism is now a $17 billion industry, and a recent report indicates that 50% of millennials are more likely to travel to a destination with legal access to cannabis, Hijazi said.

“There’s stigma to it, but you have to realize that this is coming, and the best way is to get ahead of it,” Hijazi said.

The next step, for both LBCC and the collective association, is spreading the word at next week’s symposium.

“Over the last few years, at LBCC, we’ve taken a lot of meetings with folks from other institutions, (asking) ‘How are you doing it? How do you get around this? Why didn’t you do it this other way?’ So we thought it would be helpful to have this space where we can talk about it,” Friez said.

“As a city, Long Beach always wants to be at the forefront of things,” Friez added. “We want to say, ‘We were there first, and we’re creating this space that you’ll follow.”

The symposium is scheduled for Nov. 4, from 8 to 11 a.m. at the LBCC’s Liberal Arts Campus, Room T-1100. Registration is $50, and the event can be attended either in-person or virtually. Register here.